In The Nest

The Game of Chance

Entry 04

The Game of Chance (Please Don’t Let Me Win)

Clark Resse

 

J considers for a minute. Maybe he should stay in Mt. Ryvi. Myranna is a slave driver, but she’s probably better than going back to the Nest and facing whatever V is complaining to the Magician.

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In The Nest, Stories

The Insignificant Girl

Entry 02

The Insignificant Girl

Clark Resse

It’s not the oddest thing to wake up in a place he doesn’t know. J woke up in worst conditions.

It’s one of those tricks the Magician does to irk J. He likes to make him angry. In any and every way possible.

So, J didn’t even think of cursing him. That’s what the Magician wants. Another person to think about him. Thinking about him, in any way, adds years to his life. And J’s goal is to outlive him. Well, the second most important goal.

He blinked blankly at the ceiling until all his feelings dissipates.

The room was empty. His clothes were neatly folded at the edge of the bed. His short sword, polished and displayed on the bedside table, anchors the request note. The floors were old with a thick layer of dust. He can taste the age as he inhaled.

The Magician popped him in an inn. He stares out the window. It’s a small village that he can see everything from his room. There’s snowcapped mountains far into the horizon. High skies, clean and blue. There’s a field pass the hill below. Mint trees surrounds the village. The Magician’s store is bigger than this place. Then again, the store is bigger than most countries.

“So, you are awake!” A girl wearing a red scarf barged inside. Her leg extends forward as if she kicked the door open. “As you should be three hours ago, Spawler.”

“Apologies, Miss…”

“Myranna,” she kept up with her defensive stance. Although, she relaxed after she glanced up and down his body. Her lip turns up and cheeks beam pink. “Get ready…I need you to…I’ll see you downstairs.” She hung her head, trying to stop herself from looking at him.

Before she shut the door, she scanned him again. And then went ahead, hurrying him.

He unrolls the request under the dagger.

Do as she says.

…was all the request said.

It’s simple and difficult. He never received this kind of request before. He changed into his clothes, strapped the short sword to his back—although, he doubts he’ll use it here—then followed her out.

The inn hadn’t been used in a long time. Dust coats every surface. Webs climbs up the walls and crowns the corners. Not a sign of anyone living here. Except for the trail of footprints, probably belonging to Myranna, going in and out the door.

“You’re covered,” she sounds disappointed. “Guess that’ll do.”

“What do you want me to do?”

She ticks and tocks like a clock, pointing at items separated within seven inches, which he assumed to be his chores. She didn’t need to elaborate on what to do. She looked at him and knew he can do whatever she wanted. She had a secret grin, thinking of all things she can have done.

It’s been decades since he’s done farmer’s chores. It’s different from the ones he did when he was a boy, but all the same; sweating throughout the day, get everything before the birds and don’t get bitten by the animals.

It’s different here. A better different. It’s not the same fruits and animals from where he grew up. It’s colder here. The scenery far opposite. The people much paler. For the briefest moments, he wanted to be home. He never thought of home in…when was the last time?

However, when he imagined walking the path to his house, he can’t picture it clearly. He can’t see who’d be waiting. He doesn’t remember if it’d be his mother or father at the door. If he even had them waiting for him. Thinking thoroughly, he wasn’t sure if this place was different from his old home. The only one that made sense was ‘J’. He remembers what it meant. The one thing that Magician can’t take from him.

After he finished a day’s work in half a day, he sat on the steps outside the inn. He read the request repeatedly. Nothing changes.

He’d done what she wanted. He should be able to go back. But…he can’t feel the heat that should be coming from the Magician’s store, pointing him to the right way back.

With a simple message like this, the request can go on. He can’t go back unless he finishes it. And as many times as he read the request, it doesn’t change at the second, third or the many times he reads it. The Magician usually hides something between the words. Or written in invisible ink.

Nothing.

Three young boys, in umbrella-like shirts with puffy white shorts, run in front of him. They passed him casually until one of them track back in his steps.

He wore white with a smile etched on his face. He leans over the request note with big shining eyes. “I’ve never seen these characters before,” he traced a finger on the words. “I’ve seen many characters. Not any of them like this. Are you weird, mister?”

His two friends come back too, examining J like he’s the oddest man they’ve seen.

“Aliviss! We need to go.” The older boy bellowed. He wore black with irk on his face. “If we’re late the—”

“Bjorg! He has weird letters on his paper,” he tries to pry the note off J’s hands. “Have you seen letters like this, Egil? It’s funny and weird. Why are you out here? You’re not from here. Are you the man who Myranna has been spying on? From under the mountains?”

The youngest fidgets. He has dark brown hair and fear on his tanned skin. “You shouldn’t talk about Myranna like that. Myra might hear us,” he whispered, eying J and everything around them.

“She’s not here.” Alviss sets down next to him. “Can you read what it says? I want to know what it says. Can you read?”

“Shouldn’t you be going…wherever it is kids are supposed to go.”

“Are you going to read it?”

“We need to go,” Bjorg reminded the younger boys. “Meister Hakon is waiting for us.”

Egil sat down and leaned over J. “The letters are old. Is it a version of the New Word? From the western Publics?”

“What are you three doing?” Myranna crossed her arms over her chest. It’s never a good thing when a woman guards against you. “Shouldn’t you be at the monastery? Why are you still here? And you,” she glared at J. The most terrifying set of eyes he’s seen. More terrifying than a Harbinger’s broken eyes. “Who told you to rest? You’ve got chores to finish before sundown.”

At the sound of her voice, nerves burn up their spine. The boys, heads down and shrinking into themselves, crept away. They act like they’re still lurking out of Myranna’s gaze.

She cleared her throat, instructing them to stand in front of her.

“Myra!” Alviss held his hands high, praising her. Was it possible for his eyes to be even brighter? “We were worried that we weren’t going to see you before we go.”

“Alviss got distracted.” Bjorg saves himself.

Egil sunk his head and apologized.

“Don’t get angry at me,” J cocked his head. “I finished my chores. They’re the ones that are bothering me.”

“You,” Myranna stepped intimidatingly close. “You finished two-days of chores in less than a day?”

“Yes”

“Did you clean the barn?”

“Done”

“Did you catch the pests in the fields?”

“I caught 169.”

“The—”

“Just let me end it and say, I’ve done everything you pointed at.”

Her lips twitch, hiding her anger. She’s irritated that she’s sweating through her clothes while he barely glistened. She thinks on it for a long minute. She’s about to let him go but she saw the three boys inching away from them. She pointed at them.

J follows her hand. “What do you want me to do with them? I don’t know how to cook.”

“You don’t want to eat me,” Alviss squeaked. “You’ll only get fatter, Myra. Look at you!”

She flicked the back of his ear. “It’s the clothes! I’m wearing three layers.” Her cheeks burned, until she realized J was not looking.

He still cannot get over the lack of detail in the request. When was he supposed to leave? What is his job here exactly? He can’t stay here much longer. They’re getting familiar with him. They’re going to remember his face. Of all things, people remembering him is forbidden.

“Hey! Spawler!” she snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Walk these three to the monastery. Make sure they enter and lock them inside. I’m going around to check if you really did all your chores. And you three, I don’t want you to leave the monastery until your hands are glassy and you’re glossy in sweat and tears.”

“Like you in the morning when you realize you’re still unmarried. By the way, the boy under the mountain thinks you’re fat and bitter.” Alviss said. “You should change that if you want to get married.”

When Myranna’s brown eyes loom over him, J thinks back to the moments his heart pounded faster than he can think. He slayed monsters, travelled the perilous roads and met terrifying conquerors, and this was the first moment he felt death linger on his back.

Alviss to pulls him up and toward the road. “You heard our leader. Lead us to the mountain, Weird Mister.”

Egil and Bjorg stayed for a while. They brace for Myranna’s wrath, but then left as she waves them away.

Statues guide the path up to the monastery. The guardian markers, half buried in dirt and moss, held open their palms with melted wax between its broken fingers. Thin lines of age grip the stone that the form of the Five Chapelets is barely recognizable. Figures, up to the thigh, were the major prayers: the World, the Empress & Emperor, the Hierophant, the Wheel and the Judge. While the slightly shorter ones were the thousands of minor prayers. J recognized the Saint’s Mercy, Heaven’s Luck and even the dark prayers of Black Death.

“I know. They scare me too. Meister Hakon told me to never look them in the eye.” Alviss said. “But I want to know what happens if I do.”

“You’re looking at Black Death,” Egil clasped his hands, fidgeting. “The person you’re thinking about will die a horrible death.”

“Really?” A serious look glooms over his face aging the young boy.

“Stop playing around,” Bjorg moaned. “We’re already late. If you three keep dawdling we’re—”

“Three?” J picked him up by his collar. “Are you including me, boy smaller than I am?”

“I am, Spawler.” Hands on his hips, he didn’t flinch away from J. “If you don’t let go, Spawler. We’re going to waste more time. And the—”

He and the other boys didn’t need J to shush them into silence. They heard it too. The roar in the breeze that shook the ground and boil the blood beneath their skin. The leaves burn from its edges into the stem, the branches and trunks until fire engulfs the trees entirely. Then, as he felt it before, something was coming after them.

“Resaghji,” Alviss hissed under his breath. “Isn’t it a little early in the day for it to—”

J swooped the boys up under his arms and moved out of the way as the Resaghji serpent crashed into their way. Twenty-tall long, scaled with a sandy feathery cover on its half line, it wasn’t the type of monster that can be found here. And yet, it moved smoothly and sinuously across the way. It destroyed the Five Chapelets statues under its weight.

He puts the boys down. “Stay where I put you! Don’t get its attention!”

The serpent swiveled around them, waiting for the moment J’s back faces it. Suddenly, it dove into the ground.

J flocked the boys behind him. He unsheathes the dagger from his back, pointing it at the ground. He waits for the moment it shoots up. He breathes deep, steadying his heartbeat. Muffling the sounds of the three boys and listening to the whistle of the wind, he waits eagerly.

As the serpent dives deeper, the ground is silenced.

He brushes the leaves and soil out of the way until he presses his hand on cold stone. He feels a growl like an even hum. It grumbles higher and wider. And then, he tossed the boys out of the way and took a step back, just half a distance. He angles the dagger, letting the soft afternoon gleam against it.

His expression is suddenly uncertain. Seconds passed and the serpent should already have—

It sprouts up behind him. While its tail surfaces behind the boys. The rest of its silky body rose around, caging the three boys.

He turns around, just in time before it can swipe at one of the boys. He plants the blade on its back, then sliced left to right.

It releases an ear shattering shriek, shaking leaves off the branches. However, it paid no attention to J. It squeezes his body into the boys. But as J climbed on its back, planting the blade higher and higher, it twists and swashed around. It nearly hits the boys if J hadn’t turned the blade, steering it away. It curls his head back, trying to get him.

Then turning to its belly and in one swift motion, J cuts the head of the serpent. The blade breaks at the last inch of skin. The headless serpent falls in front of the boys. The color of blood and feathers falling on either side was beautiful like fresh night snow.

“Why didn’t any of you move?” J jumped down, almost slipping at the pooling of mud and blood.

“You said,” Bjorg growled, “to stay where you put us.”

He sighed. He never thought they can be thick. “Okay. Time to get you—”

The ground gave way. They fall deep into the earth. The dirt was soft but retained the jagged edge of stone in the edges, cutting into their clothes and skin effortlessly. Beneath the land, it smells cold and wrecked.

J sheathes the broken blade to his back. “Where are we?”

“Why are you keeping that?” Alviss eyed the tatty leather handle. “You should throw that away and buy a new one. There’s a smith at the bottom of the mountain. He’s expensive…”

“Where are we?” J asked Bjorg.

“We’re not supposed to say,” he answered, crossing his arms on his chest and pointing his chin up. “This place isn’t for outsiders.”

“Isn’t he Myranna’s slave?” Alviss pointed out. “That makes him one of us.”

“What?” There was nothing about that in the request. Nothing was in the request but to follow what Myranna says! Does that include… He would check again if the note hadn’t been shredded in the fight with the serpent. The Magician wouldn’t sell him. Even just to tease him. Then again… He reached in his pocket but all that’s left is a piece of the note with ‘she’ on it.

“We’re in the Ryvi Mines,” Egil answered J while Bjorg and Alviss were debating whether to answer him or not. “This is the green channel. There’s an exit over”—He tries to find the right way—“I think this way. It’ll lead to an exit just outside the monastery.”

“You know the way?”

“Egil knows all the maps,” Alviss said as if it was his own accomplishment. “He can find a way anywhere.”

“At least one of you is less useless.”

“I’m useful!”

“Let’s go.” J fully intended to leave Alviss while he was too deep into himself. However, he felt chains across his limbs. He even heard a cling. And then ‘Do as she says’ appeared in the walls, written in green gems. At least, he thinks it did. Anyway, he stopped. Myranna’s request was clear; take the boys to the monastery and make sure the doors lock behind them. “We’re going to leave you behind.”

“Wait!” he races next to J. “So, where you from? What did you do before you became Myranna’s slave?”

“I’m not anyone’s slave,” he said as calmly as he can.

“We’re all Myranna’s slaves,” Bjorg whimpered into himself. “We follow her rules.”

“What is she to you?”

“The chief,” he answered flatly.

“Our overlord?” Alviss rubbed his chin. “Chain holder. Master. A goddess?”

“She raised us,” Egil said. “So, headmother?”

“What about you?” Alviss stepped in front of J, skipping in front of him. “What is she to you?”

“Someone I have to obey.”

“Overlord then.”

They reach the end in no time. It’s almost sundown. The air was cooler now, prickling at his skin. When light touch his skin, as he emerged from the cover of cliffs and trees, he held out a rock that’s been jabbing his lower back.

It was one of the green gems inside the mine walls. It probably fell in his clothes during the fall. It’s unrecognizable because of the shapelessness and dark color into it. But looking in it closely, it’s the bead used in the Five Chapelet. The Hierophant’s prayer.

As they climbed the hill and the roofs of the monastery rise, Myranna dashes toward them. Her eyes are red, puffy and heavy. She sobbed through words as she wrapped the boys into a constricting embrace.

“The World watches,” she blew her nose into Bjorg’s collar. “I heard the roar and thought of the worse. What happened? Where were you?”

“We fell into a hole,” J answered, when the boys couldn’t pull away from Myranna’s embrace.

“You fell into the mines!” As if the ground was going to disappear, she pulled them tighter. “Who is hurt? Please tell me none of you are hurt. Empress & Emperor, bless these boys. Oh, Saint’s Mercy, cleanse their bodies. World, continue to watch over them. Ouch—Which of you bit me? Alviss?”

“You were smothering us,” he shouts back. “You’re more dangerous than the Resaghji serpent.”

“Didn’t we lure the monster away?” An older man with dusty gray hair joined them. He acknowledges J with a curt nod then checked on the boys. “It seems like none of you are hurt badly. Thank you for protecting my proteges.”

“Meister Hakon take the boys inside and make sure that they’re fine.”

It took a while for Meister Hakon to pry the boys from Myranna’s grip. When he did, she couldn’t help but grab them again and kiss their cheeks. She inspected them once more with tear-filled eyes. This time, she cussed at them for not leaving home earlier and if they had they wouldn’t have been attacked.

The boys couldn’t move fast enough. Before the doors closed, J saw Alviss got to his knees and kissed the ground.

“First of all,” Myranna wipes her face, still looking at the monastery doors. “Thank you for protecting my boys. There’s not a scratch on them but you…”

“I’m fine. Most poisons don’t affect me.” he answered rashly when she moved in to examine him. “Make sure to treat the tiniest scratch. Resaghji poisons work after sundown when the temperature drops.”

“What about you?” She pulls up his arm, scrutinizing the rips in his clothes. “How are you not affected by poison?”

He steps away. “How come there’s a desert serpent here?”

“It just appeared out of nowhere three nights ago.” She looked over to where the village is. “It doesn’t usually come out this early. That’s why we insisted a curfew at sundown. Now that it’s out—”

“I took care of it. So, you don’t have to worry.”

“You killed it?”

“You’ll have to dispose it carefully. Especially the feathers.”

“You took care of it?”

“I killed it. You clean it.”

“Wait! Where are you going?”

“Back to my room. I’m tired. And I’ve done more than I should.”

“Wait! Are you sure? I can—” she trips over her feet.

He looked at her, pressing a gash, from knee to mid-thigh, then moved on. It wasn’t bleeding much. Also, he wasn’t a healer. He wouldn’t know what to do anyway.

Light had gone. It’s completely replaced with darkness by the time he stepped into the inn.

He took the last climb up the steps and suddenly, warm wind blew the door open. From the inside. It wasn’t the bare and dusty room he woke up this morning. The gray and brown room transformed into a vivid, shining room that can blind anyone who lived in monotone. Trinkets and junk fill the shelves from floor to ceiling. It took a while for J to get used to it.

“Welcome home, my J.” The Magician greets from his place behind the counter. “Did you like Mt. Ryvi?”

“Were you the one who sent the serpent to that place?”

“Oh my,” he touched his chest as if offended. “How did you know?”

It was the first time he accidentally let loose a monster. Besides a feat such as bringing desert monsters to the mountains was something only the Magician can do. “Why there?”

“The girl.”

“Who was she anyway?”

“No one important,” he answered with a sigh.

“You made me go through all those chores for an insignificant girl? Who made the request?” If it’s not the girl, then it must be the sponsor.

He spun a finger in the air, landing on J.

“Do you want me to bite it off?”

He leans over the counter, resting his head on propped arms. “What does J mean?”

He straightens up, as if a door unlocked and he’s about to greet the most important person. When you trade your name to the Magician, most of your former life disappears. J traded all of his name. But he remembers. The ‘J’ doesn’t belong to him. It belongs to his sister.

“Jeanya,” he answered. His request was revenge on the people who killed his parents and everyone in his village, find the person that took his sister, and bring her home. And for some reason, the request, as simple as it sounds, is taking all of his time. “What does Myranna have to do with my sister?”

“You have to gather positive light into your life,” he said. “Let the World bless you. Do good and good returns.”

He clenched his hand into a fist.

“Think of it this way,” he placed a stone on the counter, “she might kick a stone, it rolls into the river that goes into a dam and help raise the water. It overflows, water breaks out destroys the village. They move to a new spot and blah, blah, blah, until one day you walk down the road and see your sister on the other side, waving at you.”

He wasn’t convincing, but J smiled a bit. Any possibility of getting back what he gave for, no matter how dubious it is, he won’t question if it’s in his favor. He’ll let thousands die, as long as the one survives. If he keeps the insignificant girl happy to get his sister back, then fine.

And more than his face scrunching up when he’s mad, the Magician enjoys his smile. It’s rare and more difficult to procure.

“I will add,” the Magician said, “this is not the last time you’ll go back to Mt. Ryvi.”

“How so?”

“You drove an invader away once. They’ll come again and again.” He taps on the glass. “Every knock on your door, you’ll go back there. Aren’t I nice? You get to meet Myranna.”

And he smiled again.

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